Olafur Eliasson’s “In Real Life”: On Modern Art and Climate Catastrophe

On September 27th, 2019, Canadians in over 85 cities participated in mass marches, or “Climate Strikes”, calling for government and corporate leaders to take bolder action on climate change. Speaking more specifically, the grassroots groups at the helm of the movement have spoken out against the federal government’s treatment of environmental issues, urging leaders to refuse new gas and oil enterprises and cut emissions down to 1/4th of what they were in the year 2005 by the year 2030.

From Olafur Eliasson’s In Real Life at the Tate Britain in October of 2019.

Canada is on the verge of a federal election. Environmental issues have taken a front seat in the debates. But climate strikes are now a global phenomenon, one which precedes and exceeds my home country.

The global movement originated with the school strike for climate campaign, inspired by Swedish climate activist (and, as we can only speculate, future Nobel Peace Prize Laureate) Greta Thunberg — although it’s important to note that the movement has faced criticism on the basis of its exclusion and erasure of POC climate activists, including (but not limited to): Autumn Peltier, appointed chief water commissioner for the Anishinabek Nation (nominated for the International Childrens Peace Prize 2019), Isra Hirsi, co-founder of the U.S. Youth Climate Strike, and Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, Earth Guardians Youth Director, Indigenous climate activist and hip-hop artist.

Thunberg arrived in Montréal, QC to participate in the strike on the 27th. The city’s mayor, Valérie Plante, gave her the keys to the city and waived all fees for public transit, allowing residents to easily get to and from the sites of action. Plante, herself a climate activist, has been vowing to reduce the city’s carbon emissions by 55% by 2030 and become carbon neutral by 2050. She estimates that half a million people showed up in Montréal that day.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Liberal Party) who has, as of late, been the subject of much controversy, Elizabeth May (Green Party Leader), and Yves-François Blanchet (Bloc Québécois Party Leader) marched with the crowds in Montréal, meanwhile Jagmeet Singh (New Democrat Party Leader) participated in the Vancouver strike. Conservative Leader (Leader of the Official Opposition of Canada) Andrew Scheer did not march. Remember that, folks, as you go to the polls.

Over a million Canadians participated in these marches.

I was not one of them.

Days earlier, I had made my move across the Atlantic to West Hampstead, London, England. I was unable to march and sing and scream alongside all of my friends, peers, and political comrades. I didn’t realize how negatively affected I would be via my lack of involvement in the strikes until I saw all of the propaganda, signs, posts made by everyone back home. I felt helpless. I felt angry. September 27th was something like a beacon of light amidst all of the political ugliness that has surrounded the upcoming federal, amidst the alt-right rallies and fascist rhetoric.

And what was I doing instead of marching? Getting ready for twelve months of art school.

Now that’s self indulgence.

I was wrestling with the guilt of political helplessness. I began to feel sick when I thought of my artistry. I began thinking negatively of my chosen endeavour. Everything felt masturbatory, not in any way productive. Yes, my work (as of now) has been politically driven and motivated, but it hasn’t been enough. Not nearly.

I made a list of the affects of my work to date: queer visibility, debunking conservatism, following anti-capitalist and anti-fascist threads, contributing critically to conversations surrounding technology and feminism, technology and sexual violence, the #MeToo and post-#MeToo late feminist (some would say postfeminist) movements, preaching sexual liberation via confessional discourse, tackling rape culture, and then of course there was Adrik’s Story, which was a commissioned fundraising piece for Rainbow Railroad.

But what, really, are those affects? What does all of that mean, beyond the label/text? I am nothing. I felt slimy attempting to articulate, to justify, my chosen craft. We know how live theatre and performance work is. Work on such a micro scale is slow moving. The medium is transient. We are living in a world where everyone is an artist, curator, content creator. The art world is rapidly changing. We have not caught up with it. We are dying. We are dead.

And so, with all these threads in tow, I brought myself to crisis.

After a few good sleeps and morning walks through graveyards, I figured out what I needed. I was hungry to find new models of artists. Artist-activists, if you will, to learn from – to experience, to let fuel my work, to one day work alongside and be in critical conversation with. I called my entire body of work into question as I sat, quite morbidly might I add, in cemeteries. I thought of our world on fire. I’ve been chasing false idols.

It was in this state that I was referred to the Tate Modern by my American roommate, Maddie.

I’d been to the Tate once before but, this time, it was for a special exhibition – In Real Life by Olafur Eliasson. I’d never heard the name Olafur Eliasson before. I knew very little about what I was getting into, but I am now writing this article to chronicle my experience of going through the Eliasson exhibition in hopes that I may be able to offer new ways of thinking about the 21st century artist in relation to activist practice, using Eliasson as a starting point through which to productively engage with the mass guilt (or, on the other side of the spectrum, mass ignorance) of climate catastrophe.

Eliasson’s “In Real Life” brought together 40+ of his works made in or after the year 1990. The Danish-Icelandic artist’s diverse body of work includes photography, paintings, sculptures, and installations; the materials used range from fog, to light and reflective materials, to moss, to glacial melt-water. The Tate’s official exhibit descriptions cites three main interests from whence his work comes:

One. His concern with nature, honed through his time spent in Iceland.

Two. His research into geometry.

And three. His investigations into how we perceive, feel about, and shape the world around us.

Experience is at the centre of Eliasson’s work. The artist has both said and written, on many occasions, that he believes art can have a powerful impact on society outside of the walls of any museum (or otherwise institution), and that we as creators and patrons of the arts must be looking to essentially transform these quasi-elitist spaces into forums for community learning and engagement.

This is the creed that I’m looking to expand on today.

So, what is exactly is In Real Life?

A series of chambers with no set path between them. A cave of angular mirrors. A dark room with a flashing light. A fog-filled hallway. Water and dirt. A wall of moss. A series of geometric sculptures and designs.

Any attempt of mine to summarize the experience would miserably fail, especially because (as I previously stated) direct spatial and temporal experience itself was at the heart of the exhibition.

In this series of interconnected installations, you are essentially experiencing yourself experience while simultaneously experiencing others experience experience. (Come again?) Eliasson’s In Real Life is something of a masterclass for community building through gallery art. Eliasson calls [the spaces that he forms] “temporary communities”, in which you are brought together with others to form a heightened awareness of yourself, and of other people, to create an increased sense of responsibility. Through the process of experience, and of the experience of watching others experience experience, you are brought to a heightened awareness of your own being in the world and your own affect as a human body, mind, life.

The experience of awe is also, I would say, at the show’s core – the experience of submitting to something much greater than oneself. Let me delve into some specifics here.

The exhibition forcefully begins with Model room, a geometric exploration of space, object, and our shifting perceptions of these things. These threads define much of Eliasson’s early work, but here Model room achieves a greater purpose. At first, we observe these foreign objects through panes of glass, which is to say at a distance. Our perceptions of space and form are immediately challenged and provoked. Then we leave this space and are asked, by the following chambers, to participate with the “knowledge” or “expectation” of abstraction. We then watch ourselves shift and bend, we consider ourselves as art objects, we become part of the observed form.

As I went through the exhibit, I took note of a series of photographs depicting Icelandic landscapes: The glacier series (1999), The river-raft series (2000) and, finally, Melting ice on Gunnar’s land (2008), wedged between more experiments with colour, perception, and direction – specifically Suney (1995) and Adrift compass (2019). I understood that these were direct calls to rapidly changing (and deteriorating) climates, that Eliasson is calling for a shift in thought when it comes to these threats. There is something about the slowness of a series of photographs that I find compelling. I think to myself – is this due to my identity as a “Gen Z”, who has been raised in a chaotic flurry of transient digital images? Do these nonmoving entities allow me to experience slowness – that is the slowness of geologic time, of forces much greater than I/us?

I watched other people observe the landscape photographs and thought: what is Eliasson, what is the Tate, what is Eliasson in the Tate, trying to accomplish here?

The answer came to me in the form of How do we live together? (2019).

How do we live together? (2019).

A room with a mirror ceiling and a curved dividing line. People sitting, standing, watching, being. This, I thought, was truly a community space. A temporary community space, to reference Eliasson’s term. I watched participants watch other participants enter the room, observe, look at the ceiling, see themselves in an abstract manner, see others in the same manner, take a seat on the floor, and continue the cycle of watching.

I brought a very political interpretation to this work, noting the stark “divide” between the right and left-winged political communities in our global sphere. Coexistence is a dance. In my experience of experiencing contemporary gallery-and/or-installation work, I’d never seen people brought together in this way – everyone isolated and belonging to their own world of senses and perceptions, but contributing to the same spheres of being.

Having just seen the previously mentioned sets of environmentally-conscious images, and now after having participated in this installation, I understood the ways in which Eliasson was coming up against, challenging, and then reinventing the space of the Tate.

I had a similar experience with Din blinde passager (Your blind passenger) (2010): a 39 metre long fog-filled journey through a narrow corridor.

Man and daughter in Din blinde passager.

In front of me, a man held his small daughter as she clung to the back of his shirt. A couple of friends were taking edgy selfies in the mood lighting. But no matter who you were with, who you were – the experience of going through passager was shared. I looked behind me, in front of me, saw my “temporary community” experiencing the same things I was – thinking, of course, of climate catastrophe (smogs, whiteouts, monsoons), blindness, ignorance, our shared sense of claustrophobia and helplessness and most of all endurance.

There were moments as you walked, disoriented, alone – completely segregated from those who entered the space in front of or behind you.

Your spiral view (2002) did much the same thing. Your physical image and perception(s) of that image shift, as do your perceptions of others and their apparent reason(s) for participating in the work.

I oftentimes find myself annoyed by museum goers shoving their cellphones to the front of any work, attempting to capture shots to make their instagram profiles more compelling, but personally I found the desire to capture bits and pieces of the installations interesting, apt, and important because these things simply can not be captured. Capturing your own experience was a part of the overall experience. Big Bang Fountain comes to mind here – one of my favourite works exhibited in the gallery space. I won’t spoil it, but it’s wicked. Posting alluring photographs from the exhibit is also a way to get others intrigued enough to purchase a ticket and experience the experience for themselves.

The installation ended with Eliasson’s more recent work, which delves into his activist practice alongside his creative endeavours — Green light (2016), Little Sun (2012), and The structural evolution project (2001). I implore you to read up on these practical advancements he has made, specifically in solar technology with Little Sun. Eliasson herein becomes artist-made-activist-made-artist in a practical, wide-scale sense.

We are made subject to recreations of the chaotic notes and writings on his studio walls, an “A-Z” manifesto for global change. It’s an ideal space to reflect after the intense sensory overstimulation. Once you leave the gallery, you’re led to an array of “Further Reading/Study” books available for purchase (and the consumerism took me in, Tate! You won!).

I almost never buy “companion” books or guides to special exhibitions, but I did that day. It was well worth the 20 quid. For this guide, Elaisson transcribes his talks with artists and creative workers from all walks of life and differing industries: dancers, chefs, musical artists, architects – who are all somehow in creative (and/or activist) conversation.

I have thought, and I think, to myself: Are these the new faces of our poets, our artists, of our sages and prophets, in the digital world?

I wonder if theatre and performance is my medium at all. After Objects, I’ve yearned to work more visually. But more on that later.

I went and read up on some of the critical reception to In Real Life online, and I can’t say that I agree with a lot of it. I personally don’t know how to critique something that I don’t know how to talk about. It feels like there are some critics out there who don’t actually know how to talk about the work, how to experience it, how to surrender their biasses about what gallery work should or shouldn’t be, what it should or shouldn’t do. And perhaps I’ve succeeded in talking about Eliasson’s experimental practice and its resonance in the contemporary art world, and in other ways I have failed. This is the nature of the form I have chosen to express my critical thoughts.

Still, this exhibition (and lots of other works by Eliasson, which are easy to Google and read about online) gives us a “new model” of 21st century artist/activist/environmentalist that I feel is incredibly compelling and crucial as we move forward in our individualistic practices of art making. This new model of artist conceives of a radical form of individual experience at the helm of the art, which leads to further self and community awareness and (eventually) activist practice.

I only hope that I can continue to converse with creative colleagues and peers on these matters, and that I keep experiencing experiences in this way as I move forward in my camiliad.

Thank you for reading. This one took me awhile to compile and write (turns out moving across the world takes a lot out of you.) More to come.